Last year nearly 13,000 people died specifically because someone drove drunk — his or her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was .08 or higher — according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
"No one should have to be the victim of a drunk driver because drunk driving is a preventable crime," says Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) National President Glynn Birch, whose 21-month-old son was killed by a drunk driver.
MADD aims to make drunk driving intolerable.
"The United States can be a nation without drunk driving," Birch says. That was the theme of MADD's first international symposium reviewing how technology can help achieve this goal. Symposium participants looked at both the effectiveness of existing alcohol-detection technology and potential of emerging technology in preventing drunk driving.
Among the technologies examined were breath-based interlock devices, passive sensors, continuous transdermal alcohol monitoring and, looking to the future, interlock devices that a driver must touch.
Ignition interlock programs
Breath alcohol ignition interlocks have proven able to control impaired driving and predict future DUI (driving under the influence), says Paul Marques, Ph.D., senior research scientist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) Public Services Research Institute. While first-time DUI offenders in New Mexico must use interlocks, typically they are used by repeat offenders as part of their court sentence or to get their driver's license back.
Interlocks are in-vehicle devices with a tube that drivers must blow into. In most cases, they require a low or near-zero BAC breath test before a car will start.
Preferably, Marques says, the technology is talked about as "interlock programs," not just "interlock devices," because the technology opens a door to DUI control approaches. "A device by itself is not sufficient to change behavior," he emphasizes. "Programs need to have built into them — from the start — active monitoring of violations and real consequences for violations."
No technology or program can help solve a social problem unless it is widely utilized, Marques says, and interlock programs are not widely utilized despite most states having interlock-enabling laws.
He points out California's 1986 Farr-Davis driver safety act authorized the first pilot program to evaluate ignition interlocks. Since then, he says, "It has been a long, slow slog getting legislatures, courts and motor vehicle authorities to not just adopt interlock programs, but use them widely, monitor and enforce them."
With about 1.4-million DUI arrests each year, Marques says, "We should have more than the 100,000 interlocks in service that we do. It means we are getting those devices, shown to reduce recidivism by 65 percent, into the cars of fewer than 10 percent of those convicted."
In addition, as many as 75 percent of drivers convicted of DUI continue to drive with suspended licenses, he says. "Unlicensed drivers are nearly four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers with valid licenses," he says. "The research evidence supporting the safety benefit of ignition interlocks is clear and uncontroversial."
James Fell, senior program director at PIRE Public Services Research Institute, concludes if alcohol ignition interlocks were used by 100 percent of first-time and repeat DUI offenders, commercial drivers, and drivers under age 21, 3,000 to 5,000 lives (out of about 13,000) per year could be saved.
Passive sensors to establish reasonable suspicion
Another existing technology, passive alcohol sensors, like interlocks, detect and measure breath alcohol and use electrochemical fuel cell technology. The sensors can be placed in a flashlight and used by police officers to detect alcohol presence and help establish reasonable suspicion for further sobriety testing.